Why is Rock Bass Playing a Lost Art?

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Bass players are so under-appreciated. And I say that not just as a bass player but as someone who understands the fundamental aspect of holding down a groove in rock music. Rock music has two fundamental elements – energy and groove. Without them, nothing works.

Obviously, it can be frustrating trying to explain just how important bass is, especially with so many guitarists thinking they can just pick up a bass and, poof, their now a bass player. Not.

But, I think too many people miss the point when it comes to bass. I often find myself leading the band just in how I perform. I can build into a transition and everyone follows. I can drop in a melody that compliments the vocal and it changes the dynamic.

And what most people fail to realize is that, of everyone, the bass player is the only person who has to remain solid and consistent throughout EVERYTHING. You RARELY stop playing and, if you do, it is only for a moment. Even in acoustic songs, I’ll often play root and melody on fretless while the drummer takes a break.

In jazz, you often hear a trio with the drummer and pianist going off in their own direction while the bass player calmly holds the center of the groove.

I’ll tell young bass players that the most important things they can do for a band is play with lots of energy and always be solid on beat one. If you do that and manage a mildly interesting groove, you’ve got a good chance at being a part of a solid rhythm section.

I’m spoiled in that I play with one of the finest rock drummers around in Leesa Harrington-Squyres. She keeps time like a metronome and constantly plays with a high level of energy. No matter what the band may be doing, she is unfailingly consistent and there is a great comfort in that.

She and I also speak the same musical language. We’ve only played together a year and already we rarely have to say more than a couple of words to explain a groove or make a suggestion. I can say, “Yeah, on one, just go…yeah, you know what I mean” and that’s it. We’re locked in. People who see us play often ask if we’ve been playing together for years.

The problem today is that so many bassists have energy, but forgot the solidness of the groove. They play around the notes rather than on them. There is nothing wrong with synchopation in music including rock music. The Police were masters at it.

But, it is kind of like a drummer trying to emulate the chops of Carter Beauford from Dave Matthews. Often, young drummers will play the flashy stuff but forget that Beauford also happens to keep flawless time. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard young guys sitting on the drums playing wild chops with no regard whatsoever for keeping time. That may sound technical, but no one wants to play with a drummer who doesn’t know the value of keeping great time.

The other problem with playing bass in rock music is that most of the great players don’t actually play rock music. The vast majority of great bassists are jazz musicians for the simple reason that jazz affords the bass more room for creative performance and soloing – something you rarely hear in pop or rock music.

As a result, rock is often regarded as a simplistic genre for bass and looked down upon by many musicians. But, playing GOOD rock bass is not easy. It can be tremendously difficult depending on your choice of style. And, the attitude it requires very often escapes players who are rooted in other forms of music.

When I was 19, I bought a John Pattitucci video. He is a phenominal bassist both on upright and electric and I love his playing. On the video, he and the legendary drummer Dave Weckyl demonstrated different styles of grooves. They went through jazz, blues, a couple forms of Latin, ska, etc. When they finally got to rock, Pattitucci played a very simplistic 8th note pattern while Weckyl rolled his eyes and played with his left hand mockingly.

At that moment, I thought to myself, “I’m only 19 and already I can do something better than these guys!” I mean, as great as they were and are (and they are both fabulous musicians), what they were playing wasn’t rock music. It was some weak attempt at it, but it wasn’t rock because it lacked the energy and the attitude that comes with the genre. Oh, sure, they hit the notes and played a groove, but it wasn’t the same.

I think rock bass playing is a lost art and I wish there were more who respected the medium. No converted guitarist could ever replace Jack Bruce or John Entwistle or Geddy Lee or any of the great bassists in the history of rock and roll. It’s a tradition worth preserving.

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